I used to drink quite a lot – and quite regularly. Over dinner, and then into the evening, my husband and I could quite easily have a bottle of wine each a night, every night. A couple of years ago I started to feel that this was having more of an adverse effect than just the usual “hangover” type symptoms – in fact, I didn’t really suffer from a hangover unless I had drunk A LOT of wine, which wasn’t often. No, my tolerance level was (disturbingly) high, as I was able to function perfectly well the following day, even to the extent of teaching an exercise class first thing in the morning most days! Some might wear this achievement as a badge of honour (and I probably did at the time), but it started to become evident that this was not a particularly clever idea.

I began suffering from swollen sinuses and fingers each morning following a few glasses the night before, and wondered if I had a problem with histamine (this was also due to the fact that I lost my smell and taste 20 years ago for no apparent reason and have been trying to understand why every since. This is a very long and detailed tale, and one I shall save for another blog). So suffice it to say that I decided to cut back on the wine and see if the symptoms improved (a no-brainer!).

At first it was the usual January one month detox that I did each year, but I decided to extend the duration as sure enough the sinus problem and swollen tissues had dissipated with the lack of alcohol. I also felt so much clearer-headed (not surprisingly!) every day.

Having stopped drinking for a period of time I found that whenever I had a glass or two my tolerance was, of course, so much lower (a good thing!) and I would get a headache right around the second glass. I had switched to white wine in an effort to reduce histamine – and was only drinking at weekends by this point. However, the headaches started to occur after drinking only one glass, so I stopped completely.

Now what is particularly interesting to me was not MY reaction to stopping drinking but the reactions of those around me. At first it was a bit strange to not be sharing a drink at home, but it soon just became the accepted “norm”. Social events, however, became quite difficult – not because I found it hard not to drink, (quite the contrary by this time as I was really not bothered – probably similar to not craving sugar or carbs when you no longer eat them) but because of everyone else’s “problem” with me not drinking. There is generally quite a lot of surprise when you ask for water at a party, and if you say you are the “designated driver” (which I ended up doing a lot in the beginning just to keep people from continually insisting I should have “just one”) then you get the look of pity that suggests you are just not going to have as great a time as everyone else.

I even experienced hosting a party at my house only to have one guest snort disparagingly at another “why are we having a party at the house of the one person who isn’t drinking?” Even though there was plenty of alcohol on offer for everyone!

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-drinking per se, but I do worry that it has become such a social norm that you are considered an oddity if you do not drink. We are often confronted with situations where we feel ostracized if we are not partaking in the same way as everyone else, however it is important to stand your ground if you feel strongly about this. Marketing strategies make us feel that it is completely normal to reach for a drink after a stressful day, or it’s “wine’0’clock’”, or “Mums deserve a glass at the end of the day when the kids have gone to bed”. These are actually ways of encouraging dependency on alcohol, and we are made to feel as though we are “abnormal” if we do not participate. I have even seen an advert on the internet for a handbag in which you can “conceal” a bottle of wine, and it has a tap mechanism on the outside of the bag for covertly pouring yourself a drink!! Personally I find this pretty outrageous, but then I am not “normal” 😉

As is very common with studies, you can always find one that will contradict another. Some suggest that red wine has anti-cancer properties and can help reduce the risk of cancer, however another will suggest that because alcohol in and of itself increases oestrogen levels in the body then women who drink 3 or more alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% increased risk of breast cancer. For someone who has a strong family history of cancer this is a concern to me. Does the the high rise of breast cancer today correlate with the increased alcohol consumption amongst women?

Alcohol of course can have other disruptive effects on the body, impacting on weight loss efforts and causing problems within the gut.

Alcohol, Weight Loss & Fitness

I have written more about this here. Alcohol cannot be metabolized by the body, and so we must burn it off and, because it is a toxin, it has to be burned off before anything else. Also it contains a fair amount of sugar (depending on the drink) and this will be turned into glucose in the body, which is used for energy. Again this needs to be burned off otherwise it will be sent either to the muscles or liver and stored as glycogen for future energy use, or if they are already full (as they have a limited capacity), the rest will be sent to fat cells and stored as fat. And because we usually consume alcohol in the evening, burning everything off may be hard to do in reality – especially if we are also eating (or snacking) at the same time. Remember the alcohol has to be burned first, so everything else forms an orderly queue!!

Alcohol can have an irritating effect on the lining of the stomach and can contribute to gut dysbiosis, leading to more serious conditions. Excessive alcohol intake can also have an adverse effect on the liver and kidneys.

Drinking alcohol the night before you train could have a negative influence on your performance. The liver will be working harder to excrete the toxic by-products of alcohol in your system. Hangover effects such as dehydration, headache and hypersensitivity to  light and sound can impede performance and result in a lack of strength and power. Dehydration can affect the flow of blood through your body, which is essential for circulating oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, and is likely to cause over-heating. 

All these effects would have obviously applied to me when drinking regularly during the week, and it’s quite scary when you have built up such a “tolerance” that you don’t really acknowledge them. However they are still going on in your body and this is essential to remember.

Alcohol and You

The question that maybe needs to be asked is “how does alcohol fit in with my overall goals?”

Drinking and socialising seem to go very much hand in hand these days. Social interaction and connection is extremely important in our lives, but you may just need to reframe that in light of what you are hoping to achieve. Whether this means abstaining completely or limiting when, and how much, you are drinking, setting boundaries around this type of thing is very useful. And agreeing these boundaries with the important people in your life can help ensure that you do not feel pressurized at social events.

Limiting alcohol intake to weekend and special occasions can allow you to have the best of both worlds. If you do drink regularly during the week then this may be a great opportunity for you to look at some habits that you might want to change that may be negatively affecting your health. If you feel that it is too difficult to give up, then there may be a dependency issue, and this needs to be addressed.

Think about the quality of your drink, rather than the quantity. Choosing a more expensive, tannin-free wine, for example, and really enjoying just one glass will perhaps provide more enjoyment than drinking copious amounts of a cheaper brand that will leave you feeling pretty rotten the following day.

Life should be enjoyed and having a glass or two of whatever takes your fancy can certainly be a part of it. I sometimes have a small glass of red wine at the weekend, and I really take the time to enjoy it. Sometimes I don’t even finish it. But choosing to not drink should also be a viable option that is much more acceptable in today’s society – and even, heaven forbid, be considered pretty normal!

What impact does alcohol have on YOUR life?